Theology and the philosophy of science

Written by Wolfhart Pannenberg Reviewed By Bernard Ramm

Pannenberg’s passion is to reinstate theology as a respected science as equally at home in the university as any other discipline on the curriculum. This book is entirely programmatic. He engages many scholars over many pages in such different territories as science, philosophy of science, philosophy, history and theology. At times his attempt to be so thorough makes the reading ponderous. Furthermore, it is not a book for beginners but for the initiated.

Pannenberg is against any philosophy, any discipline and any theology which lacks universality. He is against any special theological enclave cut off from universal knowledge (as Bultmann, Barth). He is against any appeal to authority whether obvious as in sola scriptura or hidden in the presuppositions (as Ebeling). He is against any effort to bypass reason by some existential appeal or some subjective definition of faith. He is against any limited view of philosophy, philosophy of science (e.g. positivism, the analytic school) or any subject which stops short of universality.

On the positive side of his beliefs his basic category is universal history. He differs from process theology in that he finds his basic substratum in history, not science or psychology. Hence one finds over and over again the categories of wholeness or ‘the totality’. In the language of technical philosophy he is a total devotee of the doctrine of internal relations. No thought, no precept, no concept can rest by itself. Each one is imbedded in a network of relations, and each network in another network and each of those networks in yet a larger network. And God, by definition, is the network of networks which is therefore by necessity the logical end of following any concept through to the end. But in that we are finite human beings and history is still in the making we can never in this life come to the complete system of networks within networks.

His favourite men are Schleiermacher and Hegel. Both of these men saw the problem of God within the context of universal knowledge. Although each has a shortcoming, to Pannenberg, they were headed in the right direction. Further, theology will never be accorded a place in a university campus until it—as Hegel said—be concerned with God at the centre of universal knowledge.

To declare theology a science is the goal towards which the whole book moves. If God is the sum, the meaning and the context of all human thought, in every discipline, then theology is a science and it can hold its own on a university campus.

I admire in Pannenberg his truly brilliant mind; the massive character of his learning; the challenge to so many reigning theories in philosophy and science; and the desire to give theology the highest possible academic credentials.

My problems with Pannenberg are, first, that in spite of his assertions to the contrary, I find the person sacrificed to the system. Secondly, his concept of God as the centre of universal knowledge and world history converts Christianity much more into a gnosticism of a theological stripe than a story of redemption through grace. Thirdly, his great emphasis on reason, learning and philosophy sacrifices revelation to philosophy, a pattern which always proves fatal to a robust, evangelical theology.

Bernard Ramm

Simpson College, California, USA