Pannenberg’s Use Of History As A Solution To The Religious Language Problem -- By: Millard J. Erickson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 17:2 (Spring 1974)
Article: Pannenberg’s Use Of History As A Solution To The Religious Language Problem
Author: Millard J. Erickson


Pannenberg’s Use Of History As A
Solution To The Religious Language Problem

Millard J. Erickson

Bethel Theological Seminary St. Paul, Minnesota 55112

Like the sound of ice breaking up on a frozen lake came the publication of Offenbarung als Geschichte in 1961. There had been numerous cracks in the Bultmannian scheme of theology, notably Ernst Käsemann’s, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” and Gunther Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth. This new volume, however, indicated that the revolt against Bultmann was not merely exegetical, but involved a whole shift in world view. A group of younger scholars, headed by Wolfhart Pannenberg, then of Mainz, later of Munich, was proposing a radical alternative to Bultmann’s existential theology. Since then numerous volumes and essays have poured from the pen of the prolific Pannenberg, extending the concept of revelation as history into various areas of doctrine. While he has not addressed himself at length to the question of religious language, it has come in for treatment in several essays, particularly, “The Question of God” and “Insight and Faith.” It will be the task of this article to examine the contributions of Pannenberg to the solution of the religious dilemma. It will be less a summary of what he tells us he is doing than an analysis or statement of what I think he is doing.

In analysing the function of religious language, or indeed of any type of language, I have found a set of concepts developed by Charles W. Morris to be especially helpful.1 Morris described the role of a sign in terms of three relationships: the relationship of a sign to what it signifies, or semantics; the relationship of a sign to other signs, or syntactics; and the relationship of a sign to a knower, or pragmatics. This general theory of signs he termed semiotic, a much broader and richer understanding than the contemporary tendency to regard all questions dealing with language as “semantical problems.” Two dominant approaches within recent Protestant theology can be fitted within this apparatus. Neo-orthodoxy dealt with the semantic dimension. This was done, not so much in terms of an indirect assessment of the meaningfulness of the sign, as by a direct encounter with the One spoken of. Since this One is always subject rather than object, the language aims to point a person to that reality, rather than actually re-present it. Karl Barth continually labored to build in objective elements, placing the emphasis upon what was known, rather than the knower.

Rudolf Bultmann, on the other hand, stressed the pragmatic or subjective dimension of language. The real meaning of Biblical language do...

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