Saturday, December 10, 2005


Pannenberg and the Resurrection

After a very long hiatus, due to important changes in my personal and professional life, finally a new blog entry.

This is the third post of notes on the article The daybreak of the new creation: Christ's resurrection in recent theology by G. Hunsinger (links to post 1 and post 2).

After treatment of the spiritual view, Hunsinger considers authors representatives of the historical view: the resurrection is a bodily event in the external world. The differences within this idea are exemplified by contrasting Pannenbers and Wright. This post is primarily concerned with reviewing some of Pannenberg's main ideas.

His key tenet is that "all history [is] understood as revealing God"; all history here means both human history, and natural events. In this sense, there is no place for "exceptional miraculous events". And from the historian's point of view, it is just not acceptable to consider miracles ("transcendental incursions") as part of a working methodology. Compare this instead with N.T. Wright (especially the last part of this post, notably Wright's ideas on the relation between history and theology).

The resurrection, therefore, is in itself to be regarded as an essentially historical event. Keywords are:
  • created structures: the only way through which God operates in history.
  • contingency: the property shared by all historical events. For Pannenberg, this term signifies "the creative action of God." If contingency is shared by all history, it is shared by the resurrection as well. Therefore, its interpretation is, within history, that it is a creatural event that will eventually apply to all history.
These keywords are what allow Pannenberg to say:
  • "every event is a miracle when seen in relation to God". (ST2, 1991, p.46) This takes away the need to provide a special explanation for Christ's resurrection;
  • therefore, Christ's resurrection is a bodily event. This bodily event is to be seen as paradigmatic, rather than exceptional.
I find the methodology used by Pannenberg certainly interesting. There is the obvious point of explaining the relation between history and faith; I understand that for Pannenberg it goes more or less like this:

God makes no exceptions when dealing with creatures. Each and every event is to be seen as a bodily one. This includes Christ's resurrection. Therefore, resurrection is an historical event, which can and should be treated historically. Since the historical proof of the resurrection cannot be given with certainty, probability is involved. It is this probability that justifies (and defines) faith. Faith could and should rely on historical investigation, but since this investigation cannot obtain more than "approximate certainty", only approximate certainty can be assigned to faith.

This line of reasoning is open, it seems to me, to several objections.

First of all, it is a dogmatic and unproven assumption that Christ's resurrection is an event similar to any other event, i.e. that it can be treated without recurring to special (ontological) categories. This is what Moltmann said, when he pointed out that Pannenberg should at least have distinguished between historical contingency and radical contingency.

Secondly, this definition of faith seems bizarre. Faith would be there because of an accident. If we could prove resurrection, which we cannot do because of accidental causes, like the fact that we do not have reliable sources, or an agreed view of what really happened, or perhaps better scientific and historical-critical methods: if we could prove resurrection, which in principle does not seem something that can be excluded, then faith would be completely unnecessary. But if faith is at least potentially unnecessary, many assertions normally associated with (at least) Christianity become meaningless. (take any statement containing the verb "believe", for example, unless one is ready to radically redefine the meaning of pisteuo - but in that case one should also probably posit a quantum leap from the historically attested meaning of the verb, which would also be difficult to justify in a consistent way.)

Thirdly, not only is this definition of faith bizarre. It is patently not what faith was generally meant to be, at least in Jesus' time. Nowhere can one find such a probability-based definition of faith in NT times. So what? one could say - Pannenberg's is an attempt to advance understanding of the resurrection event in a theological context. And this is true. But then we need to clarify what relation there is, if any, between the events described in the Gospels, as they are narrated by the Gospels, interpreted by contemporary hearers (as far as we can tell - but we can't question everything leaving everything in doubt, as this would not increase understanding, but rather blur any understanding) and by attested traditions on the one hand; and the proposed theological explanations, on the other hand. My view is that this can become conceptually not different from building yet another mythological, and therefore arbitrary, description of the events. (perhaps, ironically, when the original goal was to try to demythologize them.) Another way of expressing this concept would be perhaps to speak of the difference between relational knowledge and conceptual knowledge.

But let's now examine Pannenberg's ideas about the resurrection a bit more in detail. I shall be reviewing here part of McDermott's article Pannenberg's Resurrection Christology: A Critique, Theological Studies, 1974, pp. 711-721.

From the article, it is clear that McDermott questions both clarity and consistency of Pannenberg's statements about the relation between Jesus' divinity and the Resurrection. The only two positions that Pannenberg is said to have rejected without doubt are:
  • that Jesus received his divinity at the Resurrection; and
  • that the Resurrection is the event that made apparent Jesus' divinity, which he had independently of the Resurrection.
In my own words, Pannenberg's theory of the retroactive power of the Resurrection (let me be fashionable, and express this with the German term Rückwirkende Kraft, as if to show a deeper understanding of this theory) seems then to relate to a Power that was pre-existent (hence, it was not received at the Resurrection), but which also was somewhat activated only at and by the Resurrection (hence, Jesus did not have it indipendently of the Resurrection).

Clearly, it is not very well defined how a retroactive power can have ontological significance. Jesus' ontology is somewhat changed by the Resurrection. At first sight, this goes squarely against traditional ideas, like the immutability of God (if Jesus is to be seen as God), and is open to an evolutionary definition of Jesus' nature. At second sight, I think this also raises an hermeneutical problem, namely: if we want to avoid these issues, we seem we need to acknowledge that our understanding of Jesus is at best ineffable, at worst not possible. How can we make sense indeed of contrastring concepts like those above? The epistemological problem is easy, if it can be separated from the ontological one. For example, we have no problems in accepting that along the axis of time we gain an evolutionary understanding of something, until this something has reached its final state; so, I could have a (more) complete view of the human life of a person when I am able to examine it fully, from birth to death. If I took a snapshot at time X of the life of a person while that person was still alive (evolving), I would obviously miss his earthly path from time X+1 (whatever 1 means here) until its natural end (death). But does this change the ontology of the person? This does not seem to be the case. It only changes my understanding, since at time X the future life of the person is unknown to me, because it is, obviously, future. In the case of Jesus, on the other hand, with Pannenberg's theory we are saying that in some not very well specified (at least for me) sense his ontology is changed, by a past (from our viewpoint) event, that is, the Resurrection, and that our understanding of this ontology cannot be expressed linearly. Is this nothing but a terminology problem (which can be solved once better terms and/or sharper minds can be applied to it), or are we trying to make sense of ideas for which we are not able to define in which way, if any, they are meaningful? The key point to be explained here is the relation between future and present.

This is made very clear by McDermott when he comments that, if it is the Resurrection event that decides Jesus' divinity, then "before the Resurrection Jesus' essential unity with God was not yet decided", and Jesus "had an open future before that event occurred." But if this is so, "how can Jesus have been the presence of God in history during his earthly life?" McDermott says that, for Pannenberg,
Jesus' earthly life was unique in that it was affected by the Resurrection event before the latter happened; that is, Jesus' authoritative behavior anticipated, at least in a general way [my note: what does "general" mean here?], the Resurrection and all that it spelled for Jesus' life. Present in the mode of anticipation, God's confirmation of Jesus affected his life beforehand.
I confess that at this stage I am not able to make sense of these categories of thought.

Welcome back!
Welcome back! :)

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