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The Apostles Creed In Light of Today's Questions Paperback – June 19, 2000
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In this collection of impressive lectures, Wolf hart Pannenberg expounds and interprets the Apostles' Creed "in the light of today's questions". First of all, we must find out what it meant to those who originally recited it, and then ask what it may mean for the modern Christian "in the context of the problems and convictions of the present-day understanding of reality'. Everything must start from the Lord himself, and the author holds that his message of thg kingdom was, without qualif ication, eschatological. Indeed the central theme of the whole book-and some readers will certainly find it hard to take-is that "the world's Creator is its future". Therefore its meaning is held in "God's future" or the End-lime, realized already in Jesus, through his resurrection and exaltation as Lord. yet to be fulfilled in a redeemed creation.Here we have no diluted Christianity made palatable for the mass-media, but what the author presents as the thing itself, in its challenging, pristine strangeness and distinctiveness. Yet all the way it is closely related to the everyday thinking of twentieth-century men, and to Christian life in a pluralist society.
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The book reflects P's thorough-going historical approach to revelation. Rather than simply affirming the historicity of the virgin birth, he explains why he believes the infancy narratives likely are aetiological myth designed to explain the belief the early church maintained in the incarnation of the divine son of God. He believes that the mythic quality of the Gospel narratives are valuable for affirming the incarnation, even if they are not historical. (On the other hand, he explains why the Gospel narratives of the resurrection of Jesus are not mythic and in that case the belief in the historical event gave birth to the faith). Pannenberg, following his well-known desire to promote ecumenicism, insists that believers should affirm the virgin birth part of the Creed with the rest of the Church of all time to maintain solidarity and unity. Far from being dishonest, he believes that doing so is a symbolic way of affirming the belief in the incarnation the story points to.
Article by article Wolfhart goes through the Creed explaining its history in the church, and philosophical problems and answers regarding each proposition. He admonishes the pastors and theologians to teach this creed, to make it make sense for the lay person. It is their job as teachers of the church. And here he is quite right.
I found the first few chapters of this book to be incredibly insightful, as he discusses the decline in belief in God in the west through the propositions of Fichte, Feuerbach and Freud. And how ultimately, this atheism is unsustainable. Equally intriguing is his assault on the idea of Faith as being a personal decision, a "leap of Faith" that puts its trust in no facts whatsoever. This thought is probably more dangerous to Christianity today than any single other heresy. A Faith that has no foundation is no faith at all, and invites one to treat all religions the same, basically as fictions meant to make you feel better about yourself.
He argues quite effectively that the logical line to the Christian faith, is first belief in God and then in Jesus, that the two are interrelated and are not easily separated is an intriguing one. In doing apologetics I like to start and end with the historical resurrection, something that W.P. does extremely well defending, and argue that this validates Christ's claims not only to be God, but also about God. This does work, but at other times I have found some resistant to such argumentation, and W.P. has made me at least reexamine some of my underlying thoughts on all that. It may be a longer row to hoe to go his way, but perhaps needed, at least in some cases.
The only real objection I have to this book, is that W.P. makes no sense whatsoever when speaking about the Virgin Birth. He is all over the map on that one, denying it, and yet trying to affirm it at the same time. I am not quite sure what his ultimate hang up is with that. In this he concedes way to readily to liberal scholarship and presuppositions. His whole argumentation seems to stand and fall though with Markan Priority, which is something I myself have never been fully convinced of. Call me traditional, or Lutheran, but Matthew was first, and Markan Priority is a Calvinist Camel with its nose in the tent.
As for this work, the qualifying statement of the title says it all: this book is an exposition of the Apostles' Creed "in light of today's questions." As such, it does not seek to explain what the Apostles Creed meant (if that can be ascertained with any certainty) but what it means today. Paradoxically, Pannenberg's attempts to shed light on the Creed for today by exploring historical interpretation of the various articles is one of the highlights of the book. In doing so, the Creed is more than an ahistorical document without grounding then and there or here and now. Instead, as a historical document grounded in God's history and the history of faith, the Christian expression of the gospel moves beyond existentialist interpretation to a witness to the God of history revealed through history.
A second strength of this work is the chapter on the Holy Spirit. In the Apostle's Creed, discussion of the Holy Spirit is brief - "I believe in the Holy Spirit." As such, Pannenberg pulls from the other great ecumenical creed of the patristic era - the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381 which describes the Holy Spirit as "the Lord, the giver of life." Using the Old Testament as support the Holy Spirit is the life-giving personal force of the triune God. One way this is expressed is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and appropriated by the people of God. Pannenberg interprets Paul in such a way that the "spiritual body" of 1 Corinthians 15 (the great chapter on the resurrection of the dead) as "the unique nature of the resurrection life...a life which remains bound to the divine origin of life and which is therefore not delivered over to death but is everlasting, immortal." So rather than entering into debates about a dichotomous or trichotomous nature of humanity - the spiritual body refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, passes the body from death to life.
Ultimately though one's pleasure in Pannenberg is tied to how much one subscribes to his doctrine of revelation. For Pannenberg God is known through history and is fully revealed in the eschaton. Thus, revelation or supra-natural knowledge of God is known only eschatalogically. Consider: "God creates the world in the light of its latter end, because it is only the end which decides the meaning of the things and beings with which we have to do in the present. All the chances of history therefore devolve upon any given present from their ultimate future, which is, as it were, the `place' of divine creation." While Pannenberg (and also Moltmann who has a similar program although in a different form) should be commended for drawing the theologian's eyes to the hopes and promises of God's future, one wonders whether Pannenberg as underestimated the definitive nature of the revelation of God through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. While there is an eschatological nature to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (i.e. the final consummation of the Kingdom) that reality moves outward from the definitive and objective work in Jesus Christ.
However, Pannenberg is consistent in his theological method. Even the "forgiveness of sins" is understood eschatalogically: "Anyone who accepts Jesus as the proclaimer of the rule of God is free from the burden of the past which closes the future of life for him. The forgiveness of sins is, therefore, the consequence of trust in the future of the living God...the forgiveness of sins confers freedom for a complete affirmation of the present moment, of which only the man who can be certain of a fulfilled future is capable." This begs the question - to what extent is the atoning work of Jesus Christ fulfilled then and there and here and now. It seems to me that Jesus' cry of "It is finished" suggests a finality of the atoning work of Jesus Christ who found vindication in God's raising him from the dead. To suggest the forgiveness of sins as a condition of an eschatological hope downplays the finality of Christ's atoning work.
Overall, this is a wonderful book and well worth the read. I might add that it is instructional and illuminative to read this book simultaneously with Karl Barth's "Dogmatics in Outline", which also expounds on the Apostles Creed. In doing so, one better notices the distinct contours of each man's theological work.