Pannenberg on Christianity and Science


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.

The Real Problem with Young Earth Creationism


Cover of "Genesis Flood"

Cover of Genesis Flood

Christmas 1976 was exciting for me, since I tore open one of the wrappers, revealing a book I had long desired: Henry Morris’ and John Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood. For days I sat rocking in the living room, poring over the book, fascinated with its “reconciliation” of science with the Genesis account of creation. I was a full-fledged convert to flood geology, the view that the fossils and geological formations today were primarily formed by the destructive action of the Genesis flood. The earth was only a few thousand years after all, dinosaurs lived along with man before the Flood, and my Christianity was at peace. I joined the Creation Research Society and considered getting a science degree to do “Christian Apologetics” by defending flood geology and finding alternatives in astronomy to the idea that the universe is several billion years old.

Seminary shattered my world, but not primarily because of the bad geology behind flood geology and young earth creationism. Rather, it was a method of studying the Bible to which I had not been previously exposed in the Churches of Christ except in courses designed to attack it. A historical-critical approach to the Bible convinced me that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Rather, there were “sources,” J, E, P, and D, which were responsible for the Pentateuch. These sources were not necessarily single documents, but also included oral tradition–they might be considered different approaches ancient Jews had to editing the Pentateuch. But if Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, had to make sense to the ancient Hebrews, J and P had to write material that was understandable to the people of the time period. So Genesis 1 reflects the ancient Hebrew cosmology–the flat earth, the dome of the firmanent in which there were holes for the fixed stars and a path for the sun and moon. Below was Sheol, the realm of the dead. This mythological picture was borrowed from the general culture of the Ancient Near East, with parallels in Sumerian and Babylonian narratives. Genesis reinterprets the ancient cosmology in a monotheistic way; the sun and moon become “great lights” created by God instead of gods. But the purpose of Genesis is not to give a scientific account of creation. The seven days of creation (since God’s rest is also part of that creation week) symbolizes the goodness and perfection of creation. Contemporary debates about the length of the days miss the point; the days are in mythological time, not time as we experience it. There is no good reason, then, to think that the Bible says anything about the age of the earth, the nature of geological processes, or whether God worked through direct creation or through an evolutionary process. Since the best science of today says that the earth is around four and a half billion years old, and the universe is over thirteen billion years old, the reasonable course for the Christian is to accept these dates unless science proves them faulty. And since the best scientific theory of life’s development is evolution, which is unmatched in explanatory power, the rational thing for Christians to believe is that God worked through an evolutionary process. The young-earth creationists, by their adherence to an outmoded theory of Biblical interpretation, hinder the efforts to reach Christians who are also interested in science. If these Christians believe that young earth creationism is the only alternative to atheism or agnosticism, they may give up their faith. But that is unnecessary. Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project is a devout Christian who accepts evolution. So is John Polkinghorne of Cambridge University, who is both a physicist and a theologian. The geneticist Francisco Ayala is a Christian who is also an evolutionary biologist. There is no need for Christians to through out their faith when they accept the findings of contemporary science. Young earth creationists are well-meaning, but in the end they are more destructive to faith and to science than they are helpful.