International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith

by Wolfhart Pannenberg

edited by Ted Peters

Introductory Essay by Gennaro Auletta and Ivan Colagé

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Toward a Theology of Nature (edited by Ted Peters) gathers together seven essays originally published in the seventies and eighties. The title captures very well the prospective and strategic value of the essays for people interested in the relationships between science, philosophy and theology. The author appeals to theologians “to address nature in its entire process and in its present circumstance”. However, this should be done theologically, i.e., relating “the all of nature to the reality… of God” [72,73], thus going beyond science and including our understanding of God in order to properly understand nature.

How should theology enrich the scientific picture of nature? Where should the continual creative conservation of God be included in an integrated view of nature? In answering these pivotal questions, contingency is the keyword. Pannenberg sets his arguments against the background of the assumption that science is mainly concerned with the regular aspects of nature, whereas theology focuses on the contingency of occurrences “that are experienced as the work of almighty God” [76]. If science perceives happenings and occurrences as problematic facts to be explained, theology, according to Pannenberg, can see in contingent conditions and events – “the manner of God’s acting specific to the biblical view of a creative God” [98]. However, theology should not look for gaps in natural processes “to preserve certain occasions for divine interference in the natural world”; this would be an “unfortunate strategy” [20].

On the other hand, the understanding of the world as creation and the emphasis on contingency exclude “not only an eternal order of the world but also the conception of the world process in the strict sense… of the self-acting unfolding of a germ that was already sowed in the beginning” [102].

Now, if contingency is primary for the theological understanding of nature, what about the regular aspect of the world? In tackling this question, Pannenberg attempts to conceive regularities as stemming from the contingency in creation. The regularities that the sciences describe as laws originate “as forms of process” with a certain (and limited) stability. Pannenberg remarks that the regular connection between the antecedent and the consequent must happen for the first time contingently, and, only afterwards, if certain conditions are satisfied, does it become a “form of process” that the sciences can grasp. Therefore, the regular connections in nature emerge from the end of the process, and only if an adequate level of stability is realized.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that Pannenberg declares himself to be a supporter of the “epigenetic interpretation of evolution” of C. Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution (according to which at each evolutionary stage new solutions emerge that are not derivable from previous ones), and not of the intrinsically teleological directionality that P. Teilhard de Chardin attributed to evolution.

This theologically-based perspective on created nature is the most strategically promising and future-oriented gift of Pannenberg’s Toward a Theology of Nature. It constitutes a concrete proposal with a fresh understanding of the relationship between contingency and regularity. Much work is still to be done in articulating such a complex and dynamical relationship but Pannenberg’s contribution surely constitutes a valuable starting point.