In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg accuses Barth of failing to relocate the most basic elements of his theology from the anthropocentric soil that nurtured the roots of Protestant Liberalism. What makes Pannenberg’s critique so mind-blowing is the doctrinal loci that he names as the source of Barth’s supposed failure: the doctrine of revelation through Romans and on into I.1-2 of the Dogmatics. Essentially, Pannenberg believes that Barth grounded the task of theology in the subjectivity of the individual, and thus failed to establish a source and norm for theology outside the human being’s self-awareness and individual apprehension. Astounding? I say yes! But wait; there’s more. In leveling this criticism against Barth on this point, Pannenberg also equates Barth’s “anthropocentrism” with the relation of the feeling of absolute dependence as legitimate grounding of the theological task in Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre. Pannenberg also aligns Barth’s supposed anthropocentric subjectivity with Ritschl and Hermann’s foundation for constructing doctrine in the faith of the individual subject in Jesus Christ. For Pannenberg, the difference in the content of faith of the four theologians is irrelevant at this point. What is relevant is the constitutive role of faith in the task of theological thinking in the their respective systems of doctrine (i.e., the relation of the thinking subject to the undertaking of the theological task by said subject). In short, according to Pannenberg, while the content of their positive theological statements on faith clearly differentiates the four theologians, they all share a common method for understanding the role of the subject in the process of theological construction. All four, Pannenberg believes, ground the theological task in individual subject. This basic methodological congruency, Pannenberg believes, reveals the underlining individualistic anthropocentrism typical of Liberal Protestantism, an anthropocentrism that Barth not only failed to upend, but failed to steer clear of in his own theology.
So Pannenberg on the four theologians:
“By making subjective belief the basis for dogmatics Schleiermacher combined the religious subjectivism of Pietism, the reference to the church community and its doctrinal tradition, and the standpoint of individuality as the principle of critical appropriation of tradition.” (ST, I: 42).
“We also find a grounding of theology, and especially dogmatics, in a prior certainty or experience of faith in 19th-century theologians who were not under the influence of revival piety, especially Albrecht Ritschl… . Ritschl developed the thesis that we can appreciate the full scope of the historical work of Jesus only in the light of the faith of the Christian community, and therefore we have to understand and evaluate every part of the Christian doctrine from the standpoint of the redeemed community of Christ.” (43).
“Wilhelm Herrmann’s question (1892) regarding the historical Christa s the basis of faith could not be pressed radically because faith here was always the presupposition of the argument” (ibid.).
and Barth —
“Barth wanted to cling to the twofold assumption that the reality of God and his Word precedes faith and is a fixed given for dogmatics from the very first. But the second thesis could be introduced only by way of the concept of the act of faith. The inevitable result was that Barth could no longer present unambiguously, as he intended, the priority of God and his Word over the act of faith… . The starting point of this new approach, with the reflections on risk, courage, and petitio principii, remains imprisioned in the religious subjectivism from which Barth wished to free himself” (44-5).
Here is where I have to take issue with Pannenberg’s accusation of Barth and his correlation of these four theologians. First, what was “the religious subjectivism from which Barth wished to free himself?” From Romans to the early Dogmatics and beyond, it seems one would have a very difficult time arguing that the religious subjectivism haunting Barth was simply accepted and recapitulated despite his own criticism of Liberal Protestantism. For Barth, the subject who is met by revelation is recreated in the meeting and must come to terms with the event of revelation by witnessing to its singular (and recapitulating) reality. While serving as the ground for theological witness, the event does not garuantee the veracity of unadulterated facticity of a constructed theology. The task of theology is then included within this “coming to terms” with the event of revelation, but this event does not lead into or open up a space for static theological reflection free from future correction (a point Pannenberg himself would like to uphold but in a very different way). As such, the source of theological thinking is not grounded in the subject but comes from without, demanding theological thinking as a response of gratitude.
This is where we have to differentiate between the subjectivism that Barth reacted against and the form of subjectivism coincident with Barth’s understanding of the task of theology. Barth’s desire to overcome a certain form of subjectivism is best understood in light of the type of subjectivism he does espouse in Romans and beyond. For Barth, revelation is not generally accessible to all humankind on the basis of an inner subjective dispensation or essence. The dogmatic task cannot be universally “do-able” because of some natural capability inherent within the human subject. For Barth, just the opposite is the case. While it is true that a person might make “true” or coherent doctrinal statements irrespective of the eventuality of revelation, the person making such statements is not really “doing theology,” but something entirely different. Such a person is not following revelation with their heart and mind; he or she is not witnessing to the reality of revelation, at least not intentionally or purposefully. As such, the task of theology does not give itself to such a person in any decipherable way. To put it idiomatically, even a broken clock can be right twice a day, but the broken clock is still broken.
Over against such notions of inherent disposition toward or capability for the theological task as part of the essential make-up of the subject, as I have mentioned, Barth stressed the recreation of the subject. According to Barth, the revelation of God by its very nature is a subject forming event — dissolving the old and re-instating the new again and again and again. As McCormack has demonstrated in his fine work, this is true for Barth’s theology from Romans to the last volume of the Dogmatics, though the content of revelation and the meaning of the act clearly develop. So, as I read Barth, he never had a problem with understanding the faith of the subject as an indispensable aspect of really “doing theology.” And so, returning to and answering my own question, Barth’s indispensable “subject” we might say is a different subject than the one he was reacting against because it is a post eventual subject. It is a subject that is oriented to an event, WHO is the object of theology. As such, it makes little sense for Pannenberg to accuse Barth of failing to overcome the centrality of the subject with regard to the dogmatic task when Barth’s problem was not with the centrality of the subject per se.
But my critique of Pannenberg, can also be found within Pannenberg’s own ST. For this, we have to go ch.3. Here we find Pannenberg’s discussion of religion as an anthropological phenomenon. Tracing the shift of the authoritative center of the Protestant theological task from the Scripture Principle (whether emphasized as the subjective appropriation or objective truthfulness of the text) to phenomenological study of the religious individual and/or community, Pannenberg again blows the anthropocentrism whistle on Schleiermacher and his theological method. “Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion,” Pannenberg states, ” gave the independence of religion a new foundation. Religion no longer owed its freedom from metaphysics and moral philosophy to the authority of the truth of God. It now had a basis of independence in anthropology with its claim to be a separate province in the mind (Speeches, p.21). The concept of God was now a product of religion, and it did not necessarily belong to it (pp. 93ff., 97ff.). Later Schleiermacher would link religion (or piety) more closely with the concept. In The Christian Faith, the feeling of absolute dependence stands on its own. It is not an effect of faith in God.” (ST I:126)
Pannenberg goes on to explain his reading of Schleiermacher in more detail. But, he basically concludes with the final point given in the quote above: the God-consciousness of the individual is not a consequence of the knowledge of God gifted to the subject from without (by a faith invoking experience or event perhaps?); instead, it is an expression of religion or piety belonging to the make-up of the subject from within. It is basically an essential component of the subject’s being.
Now, I am not an expert on Schleiermacher. I only have a basic knowledge of the new scholarship on Schleiermacher’s theology and only a bit more knowledge of Barth’s reading of Schly via Troeltsch. But whether or not Pannenberg gets Schleiermacher right is irrelevant. What should be obvious is that Pannenberg betrays his earlier critique of Barth by unpacking his understanding of Schleiermacher’s notion of subjectivity, which is, quite obviously, antithetical to Barth’s notion of subjectivity. If Pannenberg would have explained the different forms of subjectivity and the subject’s relation to nature of revelation and the theological task in 19th and 20th century theology when he was lumping Barth into the Liberalism category, he might have seen that Barth’s understanding of the subject “doing theology” is nothing like Schleiermacher’s. As such, to suggest that Barth never overcame the theological anthropocentrism of Liberal Protestantism is really nothing more than a two-fold oversimplification. In Pannenberg’s accusation, both terms— “subjectivism” and “anthropocentism” — are so broad they virtually become meaningless; with that, Pannenberg’s critique becomes meaningless as well (at least from this angle).
Pannenberg would have done better to level a critique against Barth on the relation of the subject and the task of theology by first differentiating the various forms of subjectivity, faith, and the theological task of the faithful subject in modern theology. If we read Pannenberg’s argument against Barth in light of Pannenberg’s own theological goals, I think we get a better sesne of Pannenberg’s worry when it comes to subjectivity than we do from simply looking at his argument against Barth on its own terms. Furthermore, from what I’ve read of Pannenberg thus far, we might also realize that his own take on the issue could use a bit more of Barth’s post-eventual subjectivism.