Creation and Science in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg

The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has already gone down as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the late modern (or postmodern) era. Part of his greatest contribution was the zeal to see theology return to Western academia as a meaningful field of study. Perhaps, nowhere is Pannenberg’s zeal towards public theology more evident than in his theology of creation. In my last post I explored how Karl Barth seems to suggest that natural sciences and the doctrine of creation belong on parallel rails of the same track. Barth’s onetime pupil Pannenberg seems to take a starkly different approach.

At the onset of modernity, theology as science was relegated to the margins of objective knowledge. Its truth claims and dogmatic statements were no longer considered scientifically probable in light of a new-found empirical and rationalistic reality. In Western scholastic circles, theology only dealt with the subjective and the unprovable existence of the divine. In keeping with this process, liberal theologians fully embraced the process of rationalism and withdrew from an egalitarian discourse with other sciences. On the other hand, existential and pietist thinkers were content confine theology to its subjective nature on the basis of experience. The outcome was a disequilibrium in the dialogue between science and theology in the halls of academia.

In fact, theology and science began speaking two completely different languages. Ted Peters, a Lutheran theologian and expert on Pannenberg’s theology, came to call this a two-language theory. Peters identified that it was the neo-orthodox camp, to which Karl Barth was its most heralded scholar, that first presented this new disengaged approach. He writes, “This (two-language) theory holds that there is no connection whatsoever between what Christians believe about God’s creation of the universe and the observable creation that is the result.”1 Peters’ adverseness to the two-language theory is reflective of Pannenberg’s own critique of Karl Barth’s approach to the objectivity of revelation. Pannenberg thought that if one is to start with revelation in dealing with theology as the science of God, one must first presuppose the existence of revelation itself. He concluded that “Barth’s unmediated starting from God and his revealing word turn out to be no more than an unfounded postulate of theological consciousness.”2

For Pannenberg, to affirm God and creation dogmatically leaves them susceptible to religious subjectivity. The key therefore lies in addressing God as a problem to be solved interdisciplinarily. Stepping away from subjectivity, Pannenberg sought to recalibrate the tilted scale between science and theology. Through creative penmanship, he resets the old challenge for theologians and scientists alike. The challenge is this, if the God of the Bible is the Creator, then the processes of nature cannot be fully understood without reference to him. On the other hand, if nature can be fully understood without reference to God, “consequently he cannot be truly God and be trusted as a source of moral teaching either.”3

Nevertheless, in order for science and theology to dialogue they must first speak the same language. At this point, Pannenberg categorized both as scientific studies, barring empirical principles found in natural sciences. Trying to overcome the empirical hurdle, his solution was to appropriate philosophical scientific insights about the concept of truth from the field of humanities, e.g. sociology, and assimilate them into theology as a human science. The hermeneutic applied by Pannenberg derived from Wilhelm Dilthey’s and Jürgen Habermas’ understanding concerning languages of meaning within historical process. Pannenberg’s starting point was that “only the meaning asserted by the agent himself gives adequate access to behavior which is directed towards a situation interpreted by him.”4

Language therefore antecedes the individual in-context, which reveals the intended meaning of what is communicated in history. This implies an equilibrium on the proverbial scientific scale. “The interrelation of scientific and philosophical conceptuality determines the framework for a rational discussion of the question whether theological assertions about the world as creation are relatable to the scientific description of the natural world.”5 Using the aforementioned hermeneutic key, Pannenberg then looked at the creation story through the narratives found in human history. He judged the creation narrative itself to be the best available explanation for the origin of the universe at that time of its conception.6 In other words, the biblical authors could only speak through the latest understanding available to them. For Pannenberg, this same approach should serve as a model for theologians today. Rather than creating a new scientific method (creationism) to explain creation through a theological understanding, Pannenberg remained confident that “truth cannot be divided and that there is no opposition between theology and the natural sciences”7 in the context of history.

Pannenberg then looked into modern science’s discoveries in order to extract theological correspondences. At its basis, he sees a remarkable interrelation between the sequential account of creation in Genesis 1 and science’s current explanation of the origin of the universe in a scheme where “light comes in the beginning and human beings at the end of the sequence.”8 In this process, Pannenberg identifies a certain level of contingency on which life itself depends. He assimilates this abstract concept in order to provide a more complete view of the created order, claiming that the contingency of life is largely ignored by natural science. Left in this vacuum, Pannenberg then sees a fit for a theological explanation suggesting that the presence of such variables implies that “the existence of the whole world is contingent in the sense that it needed not be at all. It owes its existence to the free activity of divine creation.”9 Additional to the variables contingent for the existence of life, the interdependent need for the preservation of life also points to nature’s reliance on divine action. Creation is therefore a free act of God who is himself distinct from it. Its order and need for preservation are contingent on acts of continuous divine providence.

It is in the contingent need for uninterrupted preservation that Pannenberg translates another element of divine action. In this process, the Spirit becomes dynamically involved in sustaining the created order. Quite creatively, Pannenberg borrows from the field concept of modern physics to relate the convergence of force that forms clusters of matter to the activity of the Spirit in upholding all of creation. At this point, Pannenberg believes that “the concept of a field of force could be used to make effective our understanding of the spiritual presence of God in natural phenomena.”10 Though he concedes that interpreting the Spirit as a force may condescend its Trinitarian personhood, he also defends that disengaging the Spirit from anthropomorphic language helps to preserves the Spirit as transcendent. Through this approximation, Pannenberg seems to step away from Classical Theism pointing to a subtle form of Panenthism. He suggests a necessity for a metaphysical basis for being, all the while maintaining ontological distinctions between God and creation.

Ultimately, what Pannenberg calls for is a contextualization of the creation story to modern understanding by identifying approximations between theological meaning and scientific discoveries. He finds that no science is ever conclusive until the historical process of such thought ends. In this way, not even the latest scientific knowledge can be all-conclusive. Pannenberg understood that the pursuit for the origin of all things is ultimately a quest for meaning. His application of Habermasian sociology as human science and the “aproximation” of theology to physics and cosmology shows his attempt overlap the once “non-overlapping magisteria” found in Karl Barth’s thinking. What we have seen so far is an exposition of two different approaches to the story of creation in dialogue with science. In my next post I will attempt to produce a synthesis of both approaches, providing tentative reflections on their validity towards a relevant doctrine of Creation to the world today.




  1. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1976. Theology and the Philosophy of Science. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Page 4
  2. Ibid. 227
  3. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1993. Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. Page 3
  4. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1976. Theology and the Philosophy of Science. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Page 86
  5. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1993. Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. Page 33
  6. Ibid. Page 45
  7. Schwarz, Hans. 2002. Creation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Page 158
  8. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1993. Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.Page 46
  9. Ibid. 34
  10. Ibid. 48
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