Tagged: Philosophy

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014), Theological Outflanker

pannenberg bw

Wolfhart Pannenberg, retired from a long theology career at Munich, has died at age 85.

Pannenberg was a major twentieth-century theologian by any count, with a series of brilliant articles, important books on the topics of revelation, christology, ethics, science, anthropology, and metaphysics, and a hefty 3-volume Systematic Theology to cap off his career.

Pannenberg was a theologian of history in three senses: first, the concept of history was central for his constructive thought (more on this below),  and second, he always always situated his doctrinal deliberations within the history of ideas; so although his writing was fairly clear (and English translations were always timely), his meticulous style of argumentation was too consistently demanding to attract very many readers without considerable academic training. And third, Pannenberg was a theologian of history in the further sense that he made history: his work is a monumental achievement of late twentieth-century theology. To some audiences, his Systematic Theology began to seem dated as soon as it was published, but theologians ignore it at their peril. Even where Pannenberg is judged to have taken a wrong turn, he was so thorough and explicit in his decisions that his errors are instructive. And wherever he was on the right track, those same merits make him a uniquely useful guide.

In the Fray, Thinking More Comprehensively

Pannenberg’s characteristic theological posture was to lean in to challenges, in order to come directly to terms with objections to Christian faith. He identified the chief temptation for modern theology as the temptation to hide from the conflict of ideas, imagining itself to be dwelling safely in some sort of zone of immunity, some shelter from harsh warfare and heavy weather. His project was essentially an apologetic one, and that put him, self-consciously and intentionally, at odds with the influence of Karl Barth.

But if Pannenberg was fundamentally an apologist, he went about the task in such a comprehensive way that his apologetic had none of the ad hoc or reactionary character of many apologetics projects. He never gave the impression of someone waiting to see what the world’s questions were. Instead, his intention was to think about reality itself in such a comprehensive way that his theology was always occupying a higher conceptual ground than the ground from which objections were launched.

Theology as Ultimate Truth about Everything

In Pannenberg’s view, the dominant schools of midcentury Protestant theology were too  focused on the life of faith itself, and he wanted to redirect attention to the proper subject of theology: God, and everything in relation to God. As he reflected in a 1988 autobiographical essay, “I soon became persuaded that one first has to acquire a systematic account of every other field, not only theology, but also philosophy and the dialogue with the natural and social sciences before with sufficient confidence one can dare to develop the doctrine of God.”

And he meant it. As Michael Root noted not long ago in a great essay in First Things,

Pannenberg’s project is breathtaking in its audacity. The theologian must stand ready, at least in principle, to discuss every topic. “A doctrine of God touches upon everything else. Therefore, it is necessary to explore every field of knowledge in order to speak of God reasonably.” Theology so understood seems to require a universal genius, a Leibniz or a Newton. Pannenberg’s range of knowledge is so extensive, one is tempted to believe the job possible.

Ever since Pannenberg’s work emerged in the 1960s, it was obvious he was up to something exciting. Observers had some trouble categorizing him: he talked about the future so much, perhaps he was part of the “theology of hope” movement. He was a respected German academic who actually believed in the resurrection of Jesus, perhaps he was part of a return to orthodoxy (though as William C. Placher pointed out, “the salient point of even his earlier work was not that he believed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection but that he believed one could argue for it”). But as he published more and more ambitiously, his real program became clearer. Stanley Grenz was on the scent in an article where he called Pannenberg’s project “the classical quest for ultimate truth in the midst of contemporary, post-Enlightenment culture.”

Confident and Open to Criticism 

It’s hard to miss the fact that Pannenberg believed that Christianity is true, and that it could be shown to be true when exposed to critical scrutiny. So he welcomed critique from outside, and he rejected any attempt on the part of Christians to avoid such critique:

The tendency toward a subjectivization and individualization of piety…expresses itself in an especially crass way in the usual structure of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is widely taken as a catchword for the view that the content of faith is present only for the pious subjectivity, so that its truth cannot be presented in a way that can claim universal binding force…The Spirit of which the New Testament speaks is no asylum ignorantiae for pious experience, which exempts one from all obligation to account for its contents. The Christian message will not regain its missionary power, nor church life its health, unless this falsification of the Holy Spirit is set aside which has developed in the history of piety especially in reaction against the assaults of the Enlightenment.

In his Systematic Theology, Pannenberg described the main task of theology as a critical examination of the truth-claims made by the church. Rather than presuppose the truth of the gospel, Christian theology must systematically force itself to face the question of truth.

Spoiling the Egyptians

Just as the early Christian apologists “spoiled the Egyptians” by laying hold of all truth and claiming it as their own (think of Justin Martyr enlisting Socrates as a witness to Christ), Pannenberg set out to use secular disciplines like anthropology and the philosophy of history in service of Christian truth claims. In these fields, Pannenberg worked hard to learn the language, issues, and methodology of the disciplines thoroughly, and then undertook to show how these sciences are dependent on the reality of God.

But Pannenberg never just grabbed these ideas and said “mine!” He re-thought them from within, until he could show that they had in themselves a tendency toward Christian truth. The relevant examples are pretty complex, but here are two. In grappling with Gadamer’s hermeneutical principle of the interpretive “fusion of horizons,” Pannenberg insisted that Gadamer needed to confess the ontological assumptions behind his view. Texts could only be interpreted in that way if there were a total, universal history really underlying and uniting the texts and their readers. But Gadamer would not affirm that, prompting Pannenberg to write that “it is a peculiar spectacle to see how an incisive and penetrating author has his hands full trying to keep his thoughts from going in the direction they inherently want to go.” Similarly, in his book on anthropology, Pannenberg focused on the widespread anthropological concept of “eccentricity”, or openness to the world, and relentlessly pursued the meaning of this central anthropological concept until he has demonstrated that it finds its best interpretation in “openness to God.” His conclusion was that “the genealogy of modern anthropology points back to Christian theology. Even today it has not outgrown this origin, for as has been shown its basic idea still contains the question about God.” Pannenberg was determined to remind the Western intellectual world of its Judeao-Christian pedigree.

Who’s Got Whom Surrounded?

Taken all together, these Pannenbergian commitments put him in a position to oppose secularism and its critiques of Christianity with a strategy of outflanking. Any attack on the side of your opponent’s forces is a flanking move; but when you flank them on both sides, or on all sides, you’ve really got them surrounded: outflanked all around. Pannenberg was that kind of thinker. He surrounded his opponents by thinking bigger, by pushing every question to a more comprehensive level.

And when you outflank your opponents thoroughly enough in an intellectual contest, you find out they’re not primarily opponents after all, at least not in the straightforward sense that a frontal assault would have presupposed. What Pannenberg worked toward was a comprehensive quest for truth in all the disciplines that seemed most important for Christian witness, and he found himself engaged in conversations about the nature of reality, of history, of humanity, with a distinctively Christian contribution to make to those discussions.

Pannenberg’s outflanking strategy had its pluses and minuses; as I write this appreciation the day after his death I am mainly thinking of the pluses. He gave to theology an impulse to engage in the public discussion of its truth claims rather than to flee to a private, inward, indefensible safe zone. It was an impulse toward reality, and a confidence that the road to reality, pursued with intellectual honesty and rigor, would lead to Christ, in whom all things hold together, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. That is a great stimulus to have given theology, and it could only have been given by someone polymathic enough to carry out a big part of the program singlehandedly. It’s hard to think of anybody quite like him among contemporary theologians, and he will be missed.


Giles of Viterbo: The Humanist Scholastic

The Commentary on the Sentences of Petrus Lombardus, by Giles of Viterbo.

Giles of Viterbo (1469-1532) was the most active and creative theologians who tried to bring together two worlds: the Renaissance and its call to return to the sources of classical antiquity, and the medieval scholastic tradition. Nothing brings out this creative syncretic work than the newly published Commentary on the Sentences of Petrus Lombardus.

Peter Lombard’s Sentences, consisting in commentaries on Scripture, patristic sources, Pseudo-Dionysus, and Aristotle, was the primary text upon which many university schoolmen tried to cut their teeth. Lombard’s Sentences, along with the Bible, Pseudo-Dionysus and Aristotle, ranks among the most cited sources in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. But if Erasmus of Rotterdam’s judgment about the University of Paris being a place of “stale eggs and stale theology” is any indication, by the time of Giles’ birth we are dealing with a tradition that had perceptibly been ossified. Some humanists like Erasmus would do away with the whole scholastic project altogether and return to a more rhetorical style of theology evident in the patristic writings of St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. Others, like Giles of Viterbo, while holding firmly to the Renaissance call for a more pure rhetorical style, sought to bring sources used in scholastic theological reflection like Lombard’s Sentences into harmony with humanist classical style and Platonic philosophy.

Daniel Nodes has put together a critical edition of the Commentary which places the text within the larger framework of Renaissance humanist attempts not only to recapture the ancient rhetorical style of Cicero and the patristic tradition, but also to show how some humanist theologians like Giles tried to bring medieval theological sources like the Sentences into harmony with Platonic philosophical reflection, as well as bringing in classical pagan myths to illustrate those theological truths. His introductory chapter highlights those features of Giles’ work that reflect concerns about such theological issues as the relationship between intellect and will. While St. Thomas Aquinas privileged the intellect for its ability to bring the soul to a contemplation of the divine essence, which is its end, Giles, true to his Augustinian tradition, privileges the will, since it is what sets the soul in motion towards union with the beatific vision. True to his classical humanist worldview, he derives from classical Greco-Roman myths to illustrate what the soul’s union with the beatific vision looks like, which Peter Lombard, and much less St. Augustine, would never have done.

Nodes uses the word “syncretist” to describe Giles’ integrative work, which could be misleading, since Giles is not trying to fuse together several different forms of beliefs and practices—i.e. pagan and Christian—into one system of belief. His focus is always to highlight the exclusive claims of Christianity over all forms of belief and practice, but he will see in the pagan systems a prefiguring of the Christian message and mystery. Nodes cites C.J. de Vogel’s taxonomy of the historical relationship Christians had had with Platonism, ranging from “total rejection” to “far going acceptance joined with transformation.” (p. 20). Nodes puts Giles in the last category, citing Giles’ own opinion of Plato as “a philosopher who indeed approached so very closely to divine matters (qui quidem adeo divinis proprius accedit), so delights in them, so takes our side, that it no longer seems that it should be said about Philo that ‘either Philo is speaking like Plato,’ but ‘either Plato is speaking like a Christian,’ or more truly, ‘is speaking like Moses.’” (p. 21)

“Syncretism,” then, if defined as an amalgamation of several belief systems into one package, does not seem to describe accurately Giles’ project. If, however, what Nodes means by “syncretism” is a harmonization of philosophical and mythical traditions with the Christian mystery, so that they are seen to bear witness to Christian revelation, then this captures the nature of Giles’ work much more accurately. Nodes says as much when he states that “Giles would likely have seen his work as one of finding Augustine’s psychological reflections in De Trinitate and the mystical meditations of the Confessions deep within the texts of Homer, Plato, and Vergil.” (p. 17) Giles is to be seen, then, as a harmonizer who takes the best of classical antiquity and makes it work for Christianity. Whereas St. Thomas Aquinas three centuries before harmonizes what was known of Aristotle with the Sentences, so Giles harmonizes Plato, Homer and Vergil with the same theological source. The issue is one of theological method, and it is quite interesting to see how Giles attempts to look at the seminal medieval scholastic text and interpret it in the mode of humanist rhetorical style.

Nodes has produced a very valuable critical edition of Giles’ Commentary, one which will be a standard for all scholars interested in theology and humanist strategies of patristic and classical rhetoric in the sixteenth century. As he notes, many Catholic scholars have ignored Giles because, as Martin Luther’s superior in the Augustinian order, he often bore the brunt of responsibility for not helping to keep the reformist energies disciplined within the order. This assessment, many are coming to find, is unfair. Now his true place in Renaissance theological discourse is being appreciated, as it should be, and Nodes has produced an edition that will serve scholars for the foreseeable future. The challenge now is for someone to build on what Nodes has done and produce a critical translation.

Jews and Arabs in Search of Wisdom: Two Book Reviews

Scholars and students who have worked their way through Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s and Oliver Leaman’s masterfully edited work, A History of Islamic Philosophy (Routledge, 2001) will, if they had bother to read the two introductions by Nasr and Leaman respectively, come away with an appreciation for how difficult it was to define the parameters of “Islamic philosophy.” If that was difficult, now we must tackle the issue of what constitutes “Arabic” and “Jewish” philosophy. Two works, Adamson and Taylor’s Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Frank and Leaman’s Cambridge Companion to Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), attempt to do just that.

Adamson and Taylor’s volume focuses on the “formative, classical period of philosophy in Arabic,” between the 9th and 11th centuries A.D. (p. 1) The earliest period in which Islamic scholars took interest in Greek philosophy was one of transmission and translation, these sources being translated into Arabic from Greek and Syriac. These formative periods saw a great increase in interaction with Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian texts by scholars in the caliphate of Damascus’ court. The authors caution us, however, of thinking about this period as one of simple transmission of Greek texts into Arabic, since “most important for the later Islamic tradition was the towering achievement of Avicenna,” who “was one of the many thinkers with the ideas put forward by the tradition of theology in Islam (‘ilm al-kalam).” (pp. 1-2) The central focus of this volume, then, is the interaction between philosophy and Islamic theology, and the central player would inevitably become Avicenna ((Ibn Sinna).The reason for this centrality of the Avicennan tradition is because all later philosophical work in Arabic is primarily a response to him (p. 6). But there are chapters that clearly spend a good amount of time covering the earlier period of the encyclopedic tradition, whereby Islamic scholars compiled and commented on Greek philosophical texts. This is Christina D’Ancona’s main contribution in chapter 2 (Greek into Arabic: Neoplatonism in Translation). Central to this period of reception and translation are the figures of Plotinus and Porphyry. Plotinus “represented a turning point in the history of philosophical ideas which was to play a decisive role in the creation of falsafa and to influence indirectly philosophy in the Middle Ages, in both Latin and Arabic.” (p. 10) Readers of this journal will read with interest the role of the Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn, in the work of translation of the Platonic and Aristotelian corpus during the Abbasid Caliphate. In chapter 3 (Al-Kindi and the Reception of Greek Philosophy), Peter Adamson recounts the central figure of Al-Kindi, who is credited with setting “the agenda for falsafa in the generations to come “through “his treatment of intellect and theory and theory of creation” which “resonates throughout Arabic philosophy.” (p. 48) In the realm of intellect, he is somewhat indebted to the Alexandrian Christian philosopher John Philoponus, though he would not agree with him on every point. (p. 40)

All of these provide a good background to Robert Wisnovsky’s chapter on Avicenna (“Avicenna and the Avicennian Tradition”). This by far is the longest chapter, since, in Professor Wisnovsky’s own words, he “was the central figure in the history of Arab-Islamic philosophy.” (p. 92) He goes on to highlight his significance: “Before Avicenna, falsafa (Arabic Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy) and Kalam (Islamic doctrinal theology) were distinct strands of thought, even though a good deal of cross-fertilization took place between them. After Avicenna, by contrast, the two strnds fused together and post-Avicennian kalam emerged as a truly Islamic philosophy, a synthesis of Avicenna’s metaphysics and Muslim doctrine.” (p. 92) In many ways, then, Avicenna laid the groundwork for what would emerge as a truly Islamic philosophy, influencing the metaphysics of Averroes, and defining the terms by which such an Islamic philosophy could take shape. (pp. 131-133) The next chapter on al-Ghazali by Michael Marmura (chapter 7) poses al-Ghazali in opposition to some of the metaphysics of Avicenna (especially in his classic On the Incoherence of the Philosophers), but nonetheless also “adopting Avivennian philosophical ideas.” (p. 137) Though Richard Taylor’s chapter on Averroes does not quite bring this out, Averroes develops much of his metaphysic in conversation (and at times in opposition to) Avicenna. The last chapters deal with Jewish philosophy and the Latin tradition. Islamic philosophy’s ability to influence the two latter traditions speaks a great deal of Avicenna’s influence.

What is Jewish philosophy? This is the question Oliver Leaman-co-editor with Seyyed Hossein Nasr of History of Islamic Philosophy and co-editor of the present volume-attempts to answer in the introductory chapter titled “Introduction to the study of medieval Jewish philosophy.”” What makes such figures that run the historical gamut, from Philo to Levinas, “Jewish philosophers?” Would Spinoza count as a “Jewish philosopher? Leaman provides some guidelines, beginning with a basic starting point: defining the philosophical work of Jewish philosophers within the context of “the nature of the issues they considered, issues that are both philosophical and that treat seriously the view of the world that can be extracted from the Jewish texts.” (p. 4) And yet this has two limitations: the problem of whether or not there are principles in Judaism that lend themselves to philosophical inquiry, and the more fundamental problem of “combining the universality of philosophy with the particularity of a religious faith.” (p.4) The latter, for Leaman, is the more difficult problem, since it would seem to impose a “straightjacket” Leaman’s word) on the philosophical enterprise that would force the philosopher “to reconcile what might seem to be inconsistencies between (religious and philosophical) commitment.” (ibid)

The operative word here is, of course, seems. It may seem an imposition to make religious tenets come to bear on certain truths in philosophy, but at the same time, the truths of faith are pregnant with philosophical intuitions waiting to be explored. That would be the position that such Jewish philosophers in the kalam school would take. Sarah Stroumsa’s article on “Saadya and Jewish kalam” (chapter 4) takes this assumption as a starting point: “Common to all kalam schools is the formulation of a system based on the dual basis of rationality and Scripture, and on the assumption that the two complement, rather than contradict, each other. (p. 71) She demonstrates the close, organic connections between the development of a Jewish systematic theology and the kalam as developed by Muslims. Thus, to speak of a proper Jewish philosophy, one must take into account its formation under Islamic auspices, since so much of it was written in Arabic. She notes that other than Philo, “no systematic rationalistic theology was developed by Jews.” (p.73) The work of Saadya, who was not the first Jewish kalamist, nonetheless represents a more mature and sophisticated Jewish kalam. (p. 77)

After an important study on the Neoplatonic doctrine of divine emanation in Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli (Sarah Pessin), an important article on Judah Halevi by Barry Kogan emphasizes the philosophical construct by which the Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet attempted to answer the question how to answer non-Jewish philosophers, on the one hand, and Christian and Muslim objections to Judaism, on the other. The central text, of course, is The Kuzari, “crafted” by Halevi “to address a broad array of religious, philosophical, and cultural issues that concerned him and his contemporaries in the wake of the bloody conflicts generated by the Reconquista and the First Crusade.” (p. 111) The setting of the dialogue is in the court of the king of the Khazars, who, along with his nobles, converted to Judaism in the late 9th or early 10th centuries. The Kuzari thus serves a polemical purpose, setting philosophical arguments about divine simplicity and the “Active Intellect,” and after a more complete but unsatisfactory performance on the part of the Christian and Muslim interlocutors, the king turns to “the sage,” who expounds on the Law of Moses, pointing to its divine origin. This Jewish sage “swears that (the Law) teaches nothing that repudiates sense experience or demonstrative proof, or countenances anything impossible or absurd.” (p. 132) The Law also “ennobles (its adherents)” to a “divine way of life,” completing what is lacking in the philosopher’s “Active Intellect” with a God who enters into a personal encounter with humanity as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (pp. 131ff) In the end, “the sage now maintains that what the philosophers have genuinely demonstrated is confined mainly to mathematics and logic.” (p. 133) In this, Halevi follows al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, as he argues that the principles of philosophy lose much ground in the areas of physics and metaphysics, given their denial of creation ex nihilo and the incoherence of their doctrines of causation (p. 133) Thus, while Halevi credits philosophy for its achievements, in the end, it has little to offer, and instead encourages “a whole-hearted turn toward the ancestral tradition,” through a “wholehearted return to the ancestral land.” (p. 133)

But that tradition, as Maimonides noted, is pregnant with philosophical concepts, and for him, those concepts were best analyzed through the method of Aristotle. The following two chapters on Maimonides-Daniel Frank’s “Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism” (chapter 7), and Tzvi Langermann’s “Maimonides and the Sciences” (chapter 8)-deal with the importance of the Aristotelian method in his construction of a workable basis for scientific and theological inquiry. As Daniel Frank notes, what is said of St. Thomas (Sine Aristotele, Thomas non esset-Without Aristotle, Thomas would not exist), can be said equally of Moshe ben Maimon. (p. 153)

Both books, then, give us a good picture of the common world in which the philosophical enterprise took place. Indeed, Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages was so bound up with developments in the Islamic world that in many ways, it was shaped and molded by its questions. At the same time, someone like Maimonides could and did have a considerable impact on the development of a uniquely Christian philosophy, for while St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly influenced by, and responded to, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), nonetheless Maimonides had his stamp on the Angelic Doctor as well. Maimonides, no less than Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sinna, would also become for both Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas an important link to the Aristotelian tradition.

Both books contain ample bibliographies for further research. Arabic Philosophy contains a useful chronology of major Arabic philosophers, from the Christian Sergius of Resh’ayna (6th century) to Sabziwari (19th century), with both Islamic and western Christian calendar reckonings. Medieval Jewish Philosophy also contains a chronology of major events and persons interacting with key Jewish philosophers, including major Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. This is something the editors of Arabic Philosophy might have wanted to consider, especially as a way to help non-Arabic specialists and students to find points of convergence, as well as divergence, between Christian and Islamic philosophical approaches.

Nonetheless, these two books, considered together, form an interesting and valuable whole, giving both the specialist and the non-specialist valuable insights into the common universe in which Jewish and Islamic (and even Christian) philosophy was undertaken. Given the intersection of these worlds today, and the volatility that so marks them, it is good to see two works that show a time, no less volatile than our own, when the philosophical enterprise was a shared experience between them. Can this happen again? Perhaps. We can only say with Solomon, in the midst of the chaos, “Numquid non sapientia clamitat?” (Proverbs 8:1)