Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, August 26, 2004

On Pannenberg and the Eschatological Orientation of the Church 

Often what an author gets right is less interesting than what he gets wrong.

For example, it is less interesting that Plato grasped the soul's immateriality than that he left to posterity the erroneous notion of its preexistence. That he realized the world to have been generate by a single, monolithic deity is compelling, but I find it much more fascinating that he never quite managed to shake the notion of primal matter, eternally contiguous with this deity. Those areas in which Plato's knowledge fell short show us both the indefatigable powers of human rationality, and the ever-so-finite limits of those powers.

Having just finished the third volume of the finest work of the great Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (i.e., his Systematic Theology), I am both amazed at the depths of his profound insight and all-encompassing reflection, and at the same time keenly piqued at the foibles and failings of this magnum opus, which are probably clearer today than when he wrote it some years ago.

I just came across a well-written review of this work by Robert Jenson of First Things (and this one, of volume 2). He provides an excellent summary of the points I'm making.

Pannenberg's overriding concept is an eschatological, or 'futurist' view of God, and of epistemology. As the future has an ontological priority over the present, and God 'comes to us' always from the future, it follows that our knowledge of truth, in the present age, is always provisional upon its eschatological fulfillment. Hence, all 'truth-claims' must be viewed as likewise provisional, and this belief has rather telling implications for the science of dogma, the implications that one might expect from a post-Kantian European theorist.

Pannenberg does not believe, however, that the possibility of true religious knowledge is therefore futile. To the contrary, he is remarkable forward in his assumptions that certain Christian dogmas - especially those rooted in history - are empirically verifiable. The resurrection of Christ is a case in point, and Panneberg often frustrates mainstream, liberal Protestants with his insistence on the absolute historicity - and verifiable historicity - of this event. The resurrection, in fact, represents the only exception to Pannenberg's belief that all present truth-claims are provisional, because this event represents the 'inbreaking' of the eschatological future into the present moment. Yet Panneberg is hesitant to draw forth any conclusions from this decisive event as far as epistemological content is concerned. In fact, one can draw no metaphysical or ontological 'data' from this event; rather, it represents a 'truth claim' in the order of the will (not the intellect), inasmuch as one is 'staking a claim' in history, very much through an act of faith that what is claimed will ultimately be substantiated in the eschaton.

The implications of this epistemological field of vision for building a systematic ecclesiology are immense. Since no ontological (or rather, as I prefer, 'realist') truth-claims can be made with any definitive certitude on this side of eternity, the teaching office of the Church becomes virtually a fifth wheel, with little function aside from repeating creedal statements which it must admit are ungrounded and rationally unverifiable. How far from the Catholic vision, in which the Church's capacity to declare - and that infallibly - eternal, divine truths is central to her mission.

Perhaps Pannenberg's inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to take this step arises from an inadequate christological foundation of his view of Church. Given his admittance that the resurrection of Christ constitutes the only possibility for epistemological certitude, one must ask, is there then no connection between the Resurrection and the establishment of the Church? Indeed, for E. Schillebeeckx, the Resurrection itself constitutes this establishment, as the Church subsists only as the earthly 'elongation' of the glorified body of the risen Christ, drawing all of her prerogatives directly from the glorified Lord, now established in His Kingdom. If this latter conviction holds water, and it seems to find some support in the teaching of St. Paul, then one would be justified in asking whether or not the eschatological consummation of all things has indeed broken into the present, not only in the isolated event of the resurrection, but in the ongoing mission of the Body of Christ, the Church.

The eschatological orientation of the Church was a central facet of the thought of Origen of Alexandria (in fact, this was the subject of my master's thesis a couple years back, if anyone needs help with insomnia - know that it put my wife to sleep after the second page). Perhaps Panneberg's individualist view of the Church - unduly and disproportionately influenced by modern sociological theory - could profit from a more thorough imbibing of patristic and Medieval thought, which could never have described as a "society united by individuals’ shared interest" (Jenson's words, above) that which was, for them, that eschatological community in which eternity had staked a claim on the present age.

# posted by Jamie : 10:09 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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