Wolfhart Pannenberg

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If a theologian told a physicist or biologist, “Your science will be more successful in understanding nature if you accept Christianity,” the scientist would most likely label the theologian as a Creationist or as kook. But that is what the contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has affirmed. Pannenberg is neither a Fundamenalist nor a Young-Earth Creationist. Rather, he is one of the most significant mainline Lutheran theologians of the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He was already well-known for accepting the bodily resurrection of Christ which had been rejected by theologian Paul Tillich and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann–and their view was the majority opinion among German mainline theologians. In this sense, Pannenberg is “conservative,” although he eschews labels such as liberal, conservative, or moderate.

Professor Pannenberg is thoroughly familiar with the literature of the philosophy of science as well as the literature on the relationship between Christianity and science. The most dominant recent model has been the “two realms view,” in which science stays in its world, religion in its world, and never the twain shall meet. Scholars as diverse as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould have affirmed this thesis.  But Pannenberg’s view is the polar opposite of a two-tiered view of Christianity and science. He opposes the methodological atheism with which science has operated since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and more explicitly since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Pannenberg argues that if God is Creator of the Universe, a scientist cannot adequately understand the universe if he holds to methodological atheism or agnosticism. Thus, a scientist who accepts the doctrine of creation in the course of doing science will be able to make discoveries that a scientist who is methodologically atheistic. It also follows that the theologian must bring the best insights of modern science into theology. This is something that Pannenberg puts into practice with his view that the Holy Spirit is a “force field” (Pannenberg has extensively studied field theory in science, beginning with the work of Michael Faraday).

I have never been comfortable with the position that science and Christianity are in two radically different realms. Such a view lends itself too easily to D. Z. Phillips‘ denial of the literal nature of key Christian doctrines such as the bodily resurrection of Christ, since he believes that Christianity does not make factual claims in the sense that science does. Christianity and science are playing, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology, two different “language games.” But even Wittgenstein does not accept a radical separation between language games–there are “family resemblances” of varying degree between language games. Christianity, like science, makes truth-claims about reality. To say that the truth claims of Christianity and science are sealed off from each other like an impenetrable wall does not even fit the history of science. Philosophical and religious systems have been an important part of the growth of science: Neoplatonism (Copernicus); the notion of the “music of the spheres” (Kepler); the Christian doctrine that since the world was created by a rational God, it can be understood through reason (about all the major scientists through Isaac Newton), and a Stoic-like deterministic pantheism (Einstein).

There are problems that must be resolved for a scientist to accept Pannenberg’s position. The scientist must take care to make predictions that are testable (in a very broad sense, not in the narrow sense supported by the Vienna Circle). The scientist must take proper care with data–nature constrains what the scientist can rationally say. To be published, the scientist must keep to himself any Christian or other philosophical/theological presuppositions that connected with his scientific work. I am not willing to rule out the possibility that a Christian scientist can apply his metaphysical/theological beliefs to the practice of science. There are dangers (such as those found with the Young-Earth Creationists) of holding positions dogmatically that do not fit the world of nature. Pannenberg does not give many specifics on how a contemporary scientist can practically operate with theological presuppositions included in his data set. But his proposal is an interesting twist in the long-standing debate over the relation of religion (Christianity in particular) to science.