Theology and the Sciences in Search of Meaning: Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Theology and the Philosophy of Science

By Nathan J. Hallanger
Graduate Theological Union

In 1931 the German philosopher and theologian Heinrich Scholz wrote an article titled, “Wie ist eine evangelische Theologie als Wissenschaft möglich?” in which he examined the criteria for scientific thinking and the possibility of theology as a science.[1] Scholz developed six criteria by which one could judge whether a field of inquiry could be deemed properly “scientific.”  Eight years later, Scholz’ colleague at Münster would criticize Scholz in the first volume of his newly published Church Dogmatics.[2]  Karl Barth assessed the applicability of Scholz’ criteria for theology, and concluded that the result would be “unacceptable” for theology.[3]  Further, Barth argues, “If theology allows itself to be called, or calls itself, a science, it cannot in so doing accept the obligation of submission to standards valid for other sciences.”[4]  If theology is to be a science, then faithfulness to the object of its inquiry is the sole criterion for scientific inquiry.[5]

Four decades later, Wolfhart Pannenberg also critically examines Heinrich Scholz’ criteria for scientific inquiry and comes to a wholly different conclusion.  Not only should theology engage in dialogue with the philosophy of science, but theology can and will prove itself to be scientific according to the criteria for other disciplines.  How has Wolfhart Pannenberg come to a positive conclusion regarding the place of theology as a science among the sciences?  In this paper I will examine the roots of Pannenberg’s conclusion that theology is the science of God.  I will pay particular attention to Pannenberg’s argument in Theology and the Philosophy of Science and show how the scientific character has implications for dialogue with the natural sciences.  While my assessment of Pannenberg’s project will be on the whole positive, I will offer two critical issues that remain if Pannenberg’s proposal itself is to be fully adopted as a basis for dialogue between the sciences and theology.

Theology as the Science of God?

Wolfhart Pannenberg has issued a challenge and a call to theologians and scientists.  “If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe,” Pannenberg wrote in 1981, “then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to God.”[6] The converse is true for theology as well: if natural processes are shown to be understandable apart from God, then the God of the Bible is not the creator of the world.  Consequently, natural processes must be considered in theological formulations if theology is to be faithful to its object, God.[7]

With that foundation, one might ask what sort of dialogue with natural sciences Pannenberg espouses.  Clearly, Pannenberg does not find Barth’s inoculation of theology from the sciences a preferable—or even possible—option.  After the horrors of atomic weapons and the recognition of the environmental crisis, Pannenberg notes, scientists have admitted the inability of the natural sciences to address adequately the ethical import of its discoveries.  Yet Pannenberg goes beyond the mere recognition of the ethical import of theology in scientific matters.  Theology and the natural sciences describe the same reality, the reality determined by the God of creation.  Importantly, the descriptions of theology and natural science are not competing claims of the one reality.  Rather, theology expands and deepens what the natural sciences have to say about the cosmos.

Theology and the Philosophy of Science

On what basis does Pannenberg come to such conclusions about the relationship between theology and the natural sciences?  An analysis of Pannenberg’s magisterial Theology and the Philosophy of Science will aid in unearthing the foundations of Pannenberg’s commitment to dialogue with the sciences.  The first part in particular is foundational for Pannenberg’s engagement with science.  In what follows, I hope to show the basis for Pannenberg's contention that theology has both an internal and an external warrant for its scientific status.  The process of understanding and the development of meaning will serve as a key connection point between theology and the sciences.  Pannenberg bases his conclusions on the shape of the history of analytic philosophy, the so-called “human sciences,” and hermeneutics.  While analytic philosophy searched for a scientific method that could apply to all disciplines, the “human sciences” sought an autonomy of method in distinction from natural science.  Their distinctive methods, Pannenberg argues, can be understood as part of the broader task of hermeneutics.

As the title suggests, Theology and the Philosophy of Science is Pannenberg’s engagement with contemporary philosophy of science (contemporary for the early to mid-1970s, at any rate) in a discussion about what constitutes a discipline as wissenschaftlich, as “scientific.” This task requires mapping the complex landscape of both contemporary philosophy of science (Wissenschaftstheorie) and the implications of the philosophy of science for theology’s self-understanding.  Though each part could constitute a book by itself (and a single analysis as well), Pannenberg tackles both tasks in a single volume.

Pannenberg begins by observing, “The questioning of the scientific character of theology within theology itself is paralleled in recent discussion in philosophy of science by influential tendencies which seek to deny Christian theology any claim to scientific validity.”[8]  Thus there are two facets to the question of theology as a science, internal and external.  An unfortunate consequence of efforts to provide unassailable foundations for theology has been the use of such efforts as proof of theology’s non-scientific status.  Re-asserting theology’s rightful place among the sciences will require an analysis of both theology’s internal structure and the philosophy of science.  The wide acceptance of modern natural sciences’ “paradigmatic” role in the quest for knowledge complicates this task.[9] Indeed, because of their wide-reaching successes the natural sciences need no longer argue for their epistemological starting point.  The natural sciences are assumed to be a scientific endeavor that furthers knowledge and expands understanding, and as such have become in some sense gatekeepers to the font of knowledge.  The question of how it is that we come to know seems to have a concrete answer in the method of the natural sciences.

The unquestioned epistemological basis for natural science is part of the larger problem of positivism, which Pannenberg takes up in “Part I: The Philosophy of Science.”  Logical positivism’s emphasis on the verification of truth claims and the meaninglessness of metaphysical statements left theology with two options: (1) accept that theological statements do not refer to a reality named “God,” or (2) criticize positivism’s notion of verification of truth claims.  Karl Popper’s work offers a means for theology to take option (2).  Popper argues that meaning or meaninglessness does not rest in a statement’s verifiability; indeed psychoanalytic theories or metaphysical statements are not useless simply because they cannot be tested.  Moreover, metaphysical statements aid in ordering one’s world and in providing the basis for the kinds of speculative guesses that serve scientific inquiry.  In order for a scientist to test a hypothesis, the scientist must speculate about the nature of reality the hypothesis seeks to explain.  Still, for Popper falsifiability is the key feature of a scientific hypothesis as opposed to a non-scientific hypothesis.

I have traced this portion of Pannenberg’s argument to this point in order to highlight an important point that he makes in his discussion of Popper, a line of reasoning with key implications for dialogue with the natural sciences.  Given that Popper locates metaphysical ideas in the process of scientific inquiry (even though Popper sees such ideas as non-scientific), Pannenberg wonders what relationship might exist between such metaphysical notions and the validity of scientific statements.  “It is fundamental to the semantic structure of assertions,” he argues, “that [scientific statements] claim to be true in the sense of agreeing with the state of affairs to which they relate.”[10]  Moreover, Popper’s analysis shows that theories are only “provisionally established” not ultimately verified.[11]  Pannenberg concludes that “’metaphysical’ ideas are not just among the accidental historical conditions of the growth of scientific knowledge but are constitutive of its meaning and validity.  If this is so, these questions cannot be left for later consideration when the validity and truth of scientific statements are being discussed.”[12]  By implication, theology as metaphysics should not be excluded from discussions of the validity and truth of scientific claims, even if (and likely when) such scientific claims are made without explicit reference to their implicit metaphysical assumptions.[13]

Though his description of the role of metaphysics in scientific reasoning might serve as a potential bridge between theology and science, Popper’s notion of falsification in science proves less helpful and less able to account for the ways in which scientific discovery has occurred.  Falsifiability does not mean that a particular hypothesis is simply destroyed and disproved by a single fact that contradicts or undercuts that hypothesis.  Rather, an accumulation of unaccounted for data in coordination with a competing hypothesis that seeks to explain such data leads to falsification.  To support this analysis, Pannenberg appeals to Thomas Kuhn in suggesting that a hypothesis is not so much disproved as it is overtaken by a competing hypothesis.[14]  This is true in science as well as the analysis of history.  In historical judgments, Pannenberg argues, hypotheses attempt to account for the broad sweep of facts involved in the analysis of history, not simply account for one particular portion of that history.  One must simply ask for clarity in the statement of historical hypotheses so that they may be clearly distinguished from competing hypotheses, for historical knowledge arises from the conflict between competing hypothesis that strive to account for the shape of history.

Here one finds a key conclusion in Panneberg’s argument.  If one takes a further step in allowing that scientific hypotheses may account for “singular events and contingent events” rather than only “general rules,” then metaphysics can no longer be excluded from the scientific disciplines.[15]  Metaphysical and philosophical hypotheses seek to explain “reality in general,” a temporal reality that is still in process and as such is always incomplete.  These explanations must account for both the particular problems specific to philosophy but also provide the explanation’s basis in the whole of reality.  Pannenberg believes that

philosophical interpretations of reality as a whole can be treated as hypotheses.  They can be tested for coherence (freedom from contradiction), the efficiency of their interpretive components (the avoidance of unnecessary postulates), and the degree of simplicity and subtlety they achieve in their interpretations of reality. Testing for this last feature is particularly difficult with philosophical assertions because the incompleteness of experience and the nature of reality as a continuing process means not only that new individual cases may turn up—as in the case of induction—but also that they may shift the total structure of events into a new perspective.  Conversely, models currently available may in different ways succeed in anticipating the still incomplete totality of reality.[16]

Philosophical and metaphysical explanations based in the whole of reality are not only testable scientific hypotheses.  They can offer a glimpse into an out-standing future wholeness.

Pannenberg concludes the first chapter with an examination of the links between the empirical sciences and philosophy, and historical sciences and philosophy.  The empirical sciences, as Popper illustrates, involve a speculative element that anticipates the truth of their statements, an anticipation that the empirical sciences share with philosophy.  Historical sciences and philosophy both investigate reality at the level of “semantic contexts” and both attempt explanations in relation to the whole of reality.  Thus, “historical questions necessarily lead into philosophical ones.”[17]

Pannenberg moves to discuss the relationship between the human sciences and natural sciences in the next chapter, which will lead into an investigation of hermeneutics in the third chapter that will tie together the first part.  In his discussion of the human sciences, Pannenberg finds a similar situation as that of his exploration of logical positivism and critical rationalism, with Wilhelm Dilthey’s subjectivist hermeneutics balanced by the intersubjective focus of Ernst Troeltsch’s historicism.  Like the empirical sciences examined in the first chapter, sociological theories are dependent on “the totality of meaning which constitutes the horizon of any given human grouping’s experience.”[18]  On this basis, if a unified foundation for the human sciences is to be developed, it must be done by incorporating history and by including the whole of human reality on which the human sciences focus.

Still, any basis for a unified theory of the human sciences has focused particularly on the distinctive methods of the human sciences.  Inheritors of the Platonic dualism of matter and reason often assume that the tools appropriate for examination of nature are insufficient for the human sciences.  The human sciences have sought typically to assert their independence and viability in distinction from the methods of the natural sciences, so that to be “scientific” in the human sciences has meant taking account of the totality of meaning, something usually excluded from the natural sciences.

Pannenberg reminds us once again, “Here again it is impossible to escape from the mutuality of expectations; these may be conditioned by a prior totality of meaning, but of its nature that totality can never be finally and unequivocally captured in particular form.”[19]  Here one finds Pannenberg’s characteristic notions of universal history and anticipation.  There exists a complete and ultimate horizon or whole of which every historical particular is a part, yet because of the incompleteness of history, each particular cannot capture the totality it represents. As Dilthey notes, “One would have to wait for the end of a life and, in the hour of death, survey the whole and ascertain the relation between the whole and its parts.  One would have to wait for the end of history to have all the material necessary to determine its meaning.”[20] Yet the whole from which the parts gain meaning must be the most comprehensive whole possible.  Otherwise, reinterpretation is continually possible.  Thus, the whole of history can be understood only by the eschatological whole provided by God.

The question of meaning the relationship of the part to the whole constitutes the third part of Pannenberg’s examination of the philosophy of science.  While a discussion of hermeneutics might seem unusual in a treatise on the philosophy of science, two factors make such discussion necessary for Pannenberg.  First, the “sciences” Pannenberg is analyzing are the German Wissenschaften that include not only natural sciences but the social and human sciences as well, and hermeneutics has been central to the self-understanding of the social and human sciences in the past century.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, the sciences rest on an implicit hermeneutical foundation, one that seeks to discover meaning within the context of larger wholes.  Sometimes the process becomes explicit, but in the natural sciences, whose method has become paradigmatic for the scientific enterprise, more often than not the quest for meaning is an implicit but necessary component of the process.

Having established the manner in which scientific analysis is hermeneutical, Pannenberg assesses the degree to which the process of meaning is scientific.  Critics who deny the scientific status of hermeneutics argue that its logic is circular, beginning with a pre-understanding that enables real understanding, which is then potentially applicable to one’s life situation.  It would seem that the language of the hermeneutical circle has been taken to represent the logic of the process rather than as a heuristic tool for analyzing the process of meaning.  Science, the critics continue, does not operate to explicate pre-understanding but to test hypotheses.  However, as Pannenberg’s previous discussion has shown, meaning in the sciences as well as in hermeneutics depends upon the context of the whole, upon projecting a speculative vision of that whole and locating the particular within that whole.  Further, pre-understanding of a whole is not the same as a “more clearly defined preconcept of it, which has much more the status of a hypothesis about the whole implicitly presupposed by the particulars.”[21] The components of understanding represent a means of testing hypotheses about the meaning of the whole.

The final piece of the meaning puzzle is the question of truth.  How is it, one is left to wonder, that the process of meaning by which we understand the particular in relation to the whole reaches any approximation of truth? Pannenberg’s answer involves the nature of the whole in which one’s assertion of truth is located.  Assertions are located within a context of meaning, and when that context of meaning is the totality of experience, there is nothing outside that totality to refute its truthfulness.  “In the all-encompassing totality of meaning, therefore, meaning and truth coincide.  To this extent it is an intrinsic part of the hermeneutical consideration of the composite meanings of linguistic utterances to investigate their truth.”[22]  Even assertions with a limited horizon place themselves in the context of a complete horizon of meaning and open themselves up to the question of their truth.  And as an anticipation of truth “the proposition claims to be true while at the same time laying itself open to refutation.”[23] Pannenberg concludes his chapter on hermeneutics with a rather curious remark: “It may be assumed in advance that the situation of theology will prove to be similar.”[24] Unclear at this point is whether the similarity between theology and philosophy of science is purely one of method or one of content.  If the context of the philosophy of science is an implicit totality of meaning, is the philosophy of science asking the question of God?  Or is the connection simply in the fact that both theology and the philosophy of science are based upon a hermeneutical methodology?[25] Though a full discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, Pannenberg’s description in Part II on theology as the science of God would suggest that the unity between Part I and Part II is both one of content and one of method.  Pannenberg believes that all knowing has the characteristic of “hermeneutics,” which he defines as placing particular knowledge in the widest possible context.  Understanding and meaning emerge when the particular is developed in light of the whole to which it points.  God is the reality that determines everything and thus the most comprehensive horizon for human meaning, so theology shares its ultimate horizon with the sciences.  Still, theology differs from other sciences in its attempt to engage in “the study of the totality of the real from the point of view of the reality which ultimately determines it as a whole and it its parts.”[26] The difference between theology and the sciences seems to lie not in method or epistemology in Pannenberg’s proposal, but rather in the comprehensive scope of theology’s hypotheses—examining the whole of reality from the point of view of the all-determining reality.

Pannenberg Between Theology and the Natural Sciences

Two matters need greater clarification.  First, if all scientific disciplines share this feature of hermeneutics, then can one say that in order for these disciplines to do their work, they must take account of the widest possible context for knowledge and reality, i.e. God?  Scientists from disciplines outside of theology might respond that they develop knowledge by strict focus on the particulars, with no reference to any whole of which such particulars might be a part.  Further, science has been enormously successful despite—and perhaps because—it reduces an object under study to its component parts as a means of understanding whole entities at any level.  Placing an object under study into a context that is too broad might lead an investigation away from the explanation of key particulars.

Pannenberg would respond that even if the context of the whole appears absent, it is implicit in any attempt to understand and develop knowledge. Understanding is impossible without meaning; any scientific hypothesis speculates on its context within a greater whole, and in doing so asserts the truth of that context.  And only through this process can one evaluate hypothetical claims in relation to other hypotheses that claim to better account for the data.  Furthermore, certain phenomena can be understood only in relation to a wider context, for example the information-bearing capacity of DNA base pairs.  Science might examine particular phenomena, but the understanding of such phenomena emerges only from the wider context in which the phenomena occur.

The second matter involves the nature of hermeneutics itself.  Recall that Pannenberg has said that if nature can be shown to be intelligible without reference to God, then the God of the Bible is not the creator of the world.[27] Currently, any number of scientists (natural, social, and otherwise) would advance this very claim: science can understand the world apart from God, so the world must not be the product of the creator God.  The key question, then, is to what degree this claim falsifies Pannenberg’s competing claim that the sciences are a hermeneutical discipline in their efforts to locate particular data within the widest possible context.  The broader question involves the scientific status of Pannenberg’s claim regarding hermeneutics as foundational for scientific inquiry.  Clearly, he would deny that his argument falls outside the realm of rational argumentation, so he must accept that his own proposal is in some sense scientific.  As such, one must regard it as open to falsification and modification by competing hypotheses that better account for the nature of reality itself.  The question of whether a scientific hypothesis with God absent can provide a more cohesive understanding for the totality of reality than one with God present awaits further testing and ultimate verification (or falsification) in the eschaton.

One competing vision might split Pannenberg’s connection between meaning and truth.  For Pannenberg, truth and meaning coincide with God because there is no context beyond God to contradict the reality of God.  The natural sciences seem particularly prone to split this connection, separating meaning and truth in the investigation of reality while simultaneously denying the contextuality of the scientific enterprise.  Indeed, hermeneutics itself can appear to be so much deferred meaning as to render interpretation practically meaningless.  Here, dialogue between the sciences and theology would be one way—from science to theology—if it occurs at all.  Thus, questions about the nature of the hermeneutic enterprise threaten not only the character of the dialogue but also the very possibility for dialogue.

Pannenberg might respond that these are indeed possible criticisms arising from the anticipatory character of reality itself.  Meaning is ultimately deferred to the future eschaton when what is currently debatable will be shown to have been true all along.  For Christians this means that God’s reality and the truth of the Christian message depend on a future act of God.   And yet competing hypotheses for the meaninglessness of reality abound, threatening to falsify the Christian vision.  However, Pannenberg argues that the Christian God as the all-determining reality accounts for the nature of reality with greater coherence than do competing explanations, and in fact includes the current debatability of these claims.  No hypothesis to date has provided a more comprehensive account for the nature of reality that the account provided by the revelation of the God of the Bible in the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite its unavoidably contested status, the vision of theology and the sciences put forth by Pannenberg represents a key move toward true dialogue.  Because theology is scientific, theology need not simply alter its own formulations apologetically, but instead can pose questions to scientists in a manner that legitimizes the theological questions as scientific.  Points of contention clearly exist, but because reality is essential future, one must live with the provisionality of any claim to the truth and test such claims by their coherence with the scientific disciplines and their implications for one’s understanding of this as-yet unfinished reality.

Conclusion

Theology and the Philosophy of Science serves a foundational role for Pannenberg’s two methodological commitments.  First, Christian theology should attempt to confirm the explication of God’s revelation in history in relation to all of known reality.  This first task is where theology especially gains its stature as a scientific discipline.  In order to engage the disciplines of the university, theology must adhere to criteria by which such disciplines are judged to be scientific.  As Pannenberg points out, most disciplines do not take their scientific status as a given, but rather must continually re-examine the philosophical basis for its given area of expertise.  In the contemporary period, however, the natural sciences have achieved such unrivalled triumphs in advancing human knowledge that such philosophical and methodological reflection appears unnecessary.  The natural sciences have become paradigmatic for what it means to be a scientific discipline.[28] But as he shows in the first part of Theology and the Philosophy of Science, being scientific must be interpreted with greater precision when one recognizes theology and the sciences’ shared basis in hermeneutics.  Both disciplines develop scientific hypotheses that attempt to explain the one reality determined by God.

Pannenberg’s second methodological focus is related to the first but focuses more on the task of theology as such.  Here, Pannenberg describes the manner in which theology should use scripture and history to explicate the indirect revelation of God in history.  His early Revelation as History and subsequent Jesus—God and Man are paradigmatic for this methodological task.  In the second part of Theology and the Philosophy of Science, the proposal for the structure of theology as a science and the inter-relation of its various disciplines form a progressive proposal.  The tools of the historical sciences should provide data for rational analysis, whether on the question of revelation or of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Analysis of this portion of Pannenberg’s work, however, must be examined within the scope of a separate analysis.

In both tasks, theology is engaged in interpretation and the search for meaning.  When it expands to the widest possible context, then the search for meaning coincides with the quest for truth.  In anticipation of final verification in the eschaton, and with God as its ultimate horizon, theology can claim a deeper and more meaningful explanation for reality, while engaging the particular sciences in understanding God’s creation.  In this task, Wolfhart Pannenberg demonstrates how and why theology must avoid isolation and engage the other disciplines that share this one reality.


[1]Heinrich Scholz, “Wie ist eine evangelische Theologie als Wissenschaft möglich?” Zwischen den Zeiten 9 (1931): 8-53.

[2] Perhaps Barth’s criticism had non-theological reasons as well for criticizing Scholz.  Scholz had proposed marriage to Barth’s assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum, a proposal von Kirschbaum refused. See George Hunsinger, review of Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology, by Suzanne Selinger, [review online] (accessed May 4, 2004 ); available from http://www.ptsem.edu/grow/barth/Selinger_review.htm; internet.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 14 vols, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975) I.1, 9.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Theological Questions to Scientists,” Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith, trans. Ted Peters (Nashville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 16.

[7] Barth had said something similar in arguing that theology’s scientific status derived from faithfulness to its object.  However, for Barth the evidentiary value of any natural knowledge was dependent not on any rational criteria but rather on the nature of the object, God, in giving itself to faith.  Thus Pannenberg can argue that Barth did not fully escape Schleiermacher’s subjectivist starting point for theology of which Barth was so critical.  See Theology and the Philosophy of Science, 272-273: “Barth’s unmediated starting from God and his revealing word turns out to be no more than an unfounded postulate of theological consciousness. [It] is in fact the furthest extreme of subjectivism made into a theological position.”

[8] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 20 (hereafter referred to as TPS).

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] TPS, 41.

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] Ibid., 43.

[13] Philip Clayton expands Pannenberg’s point in terms of the need for metaphysics to serve as a ‘control’ in science-theology discourse. See “From Methodology to Metaphysics: The Problem of Control in Science-Religion Discourse,” in Beginning with the End: God, Science, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, edited by Carol Rausch Albright and Joel Haugen (Open Court: Chicago, 1998), 396-408.

[14] TPS, 66.

[15] Ibid., 68.

[16] TPS, 69.

[17] Ibid., 70.

[18] TPS, 103.

[19]Ibid., 103.

[20]Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Bernhard Groethuysen (Leipzig: B. B. Tuebner, 1927); translated in Dilthey: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. H. P. Rickman (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1976), 236. Quoted in TPS, 161-162.

[21] TPS, 201.

[22] Ibid., 220.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 224.

[25] Peter Hodgson, review of Theology and the Philosophy of Science, by Wolfhart Pannenberg, Religious Studies Review 3, no. 4 (October 1977): 216.

[26] TPS, 301-303.

[27] Pannenberg, “Theological Questions to Scientists,” 16.

[28] TPS, 22.