Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg dialogue on Creation and Science

A dialogue between Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg is nothing new. Barth was once Pannenberg’s professor at Heidelberg University in Germany, and the two scholars continued to exchange letters throughout their lives. Reading through theses letters one can see that their dialogue was often direct and incisive, but always seasoned with admiration and respect. Back to my topic at hand, my last post addressed how Ted Peters’ theory of two-languages explains the polarization between theology and natural sciences particularly in Barth’s theology. Allow me to recall it. In true Californian style, Peters uses a volleyball analogy to explain how religion and science seem to be content with hitting the ball among each other in their respective ends of the court. While some scientists are pleased to abstain from theological implications regarding meaning and purpose, some theologians seem glad to withdraw from empirical scientific inquiry. For Peters, the only viable solution is for one side to take the initiative, hitting the theoretical volleyball over the net hoping that it finds consideration and is returned with the same impetus.

Ultimately, Peters’ call for dialogue seems to stem out of Pannenberg’s concession that scientific theories have achieved such a high degree of validity that any considerable assertion about the reality of the world today must first pass through the test of the scientific method, to which Pannenberg affirms “is impossible to change this fact by mere decree.”1 In sum, Pannenberg sees science as the only playing surface in which the game can be played. Theologians therefore must use contemporary scientific discoveries and search Scripture and tradition in order to find approximations. Karl Barth’s concession was completely different. He believed that the Genesis creation narrative only achieved it’s full significance through a dogmatic epistemology. For Barth, the meaning of the narrative is about what it reveals concerning God’s revelation in that “event”. Such assessments naturally incurs the following questions: Does adherence to modernity mean that every scientific description of reality need to be equally matched by a theological approximation? On the other hand, in the case of Karl Barth, does every dogmatic statement need the backing of contemporary scientific knowledge to be legitimized as truth? Furthermore, is the theology-science relationship to be egalitarian or complementarian in nature?

The answer to these questions lie perhaps in the target audience for each theologian. While Pannenberg sees only one “volleyball court” which is the public sphere, Karl Barth seems to be concerned with a completely different arena. In Church Dogmatics, he identifies with the church and wants to provide a dogmatic language for the church, while speaking to the church. He describes his dogmatic task as “the self-test to which the Christian Church puts herself in respect of the content of her peculiar language about God.”2 Naturally, it then becomes acceptable, if not necessary, to presume on the assumptions or rules of the sport that each is playing. In this setting, Barth finds no qualms in relying on the Word to explain direct revelation as a valid epistemology. By presuming on the peculiarities of revelation, he is able to build a theology from above that is unhindered by natural theology or scientific datum but that nonetheless communicates God’s revelatory meaning to the church.

On the other hand, Pannenberg’s aim seems to be to restore theology’s place among the scientific community as a “field-encompassing field.”3 Pannenberg is set on a Thomistic view of theology as the “Queen of Science”. He highly contests the relegation of theology to the margins of academia and the accommodation that theologians, Karl Barth in particular, made to it. By his own admission, Pannenberg seeks to communicate theological meaning to the rest of the scientific community by bringing theology to the public “volleyball court”. In this arena, theology cannot be merely dogmatic, but has to be presented as a science, even if it is the science of God per se. Pannenberg finds epistemological basis in the historical process, and therefore works to build a theology that is from below.

Both formulations are therefore systemically different due to their respective target audience. This implies that both theologies are relevant within they proper context. Whereas Barth’s dogmatic approach defines God’s self-revelation as an absolute truth from above, Pannenberg relies on historical process in order to offer the latest understanding regarding of the revelatory truth. Nonetheless, both are highly speculative. Barth speculates on Scripture, liturgy and creeds while Pannenberg speculates on the metaphysical interpretations, theological approximations of scientific findings and the inefficiencies of the historical-critical method when dealing with Genesis 1 as the best available narrative about the origin of all things.

This brings me to the positive points of convergence between these two approaches. Both theologies seem concerned with affirming and preserving the teleological meaning that Genesis 1 and 2 attributes to all of creation. Both seem to use their respective theologies as a structure for checks and balances within the process of scientific research. Barth does this in his reservation of Social Darwinism, and Pannenberg in his view of contingency and nature’s need for preservation. What is perhaps their most evident contrast is the direction through which each one approaches their respective theologies of creation. Karl Barth builds his theology from above finding no problem with using revelation as a starting point. Barth does this in order to ascertain the theological truth that the narrative of creation communicates whilst avoiding the shifting sands of historical criticism. On the other hand, Wolfhart Pannenberg approaches his theology from below using philosophical and sociological principles as an appropriate scientific method. His intention is to use theology as science and sees no problem adapting the biblical message to contemporary discoveries. Overall, we see in both that the cosmological and geological search for the origin is ultimately a quest for meaning. It is in light of these and other challenges that the Christian story of creation can serve as a guiding ethos for the preservation of all reality.

This series of posts attempted to present a dialogue between two inherent different approaches to the biblical story of creation by highlighting their differences and commonalities. I have explored their particular methodologies and conclusions in the wider context of science and religion. Unfortunately, current day interactions between science and religion in the media and public sphere is often less of a dialogue and more of an unending apologetic debate. The defense of any position naturally implies that one must first arm oneself with the weapons of disinformation in order to invalidate the opposing side. Such has been the approach taken by New Atheism in literature and the media. At the same time, the resurgence of theological fundamentalism has provided no benefit to the cause of dialogue. This seemingly dialectic reality has yet to produce a synthesis which benefits both sides of the aisle. Thus, we are caught in a quagmire of disputing factions who either seek to devalue each other. Nonetheless, Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg are insightful thinkers who equip us with resources for furthering the conversation in humanity’s own quest for meaning and purpose.

 

Footnotes

 

Footnotes

  1. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1993. Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press
  2. Barth, Karl. 1975. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Part 1. Vol. 1 Vol. 1 . Edinburgh: Clark.
  3. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1993. Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. Page 7
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